Art for science

Alex Christopher: Emergence, video art

Pathogenicity, Donna Robinson, Emergence

Pathogenicity, Donna Robinson, Emergence

In an age of apathy amid bombardment with information, it is often said that science has “a communication problem,” so artists are called on to shine a light on it in ways that are more effective than academic writing and mass media accounts. The video art exhibition Emergence features screen works made in partnerships between seven research scientists and eight artists who reside in northern Queensland. The artists were challenged to draw upon, visually communicate and expand the reach of scientific research.

In the eMerge space at Townsville’s James Cook University, three walls are filled with four imposing projections, each comprising two video loops. Seven of the eight works focus on reef or water-related studies. With sound heard only through headphones and the imagery being mostly acquatic, the exhibition space is flickeringly reef-blue and silently thought-inducing. With seamless editing, Matt Whitton’s Water depicts the journey from liquid to vapour while Posse’s textural montage, Reap What’s Sown, blends various textures to hint at the threats to the reef from connecting industrial waterways.

There is a tension in the works between the need to be didactic—to uphold the science—and to produce something with creative strength; some films were either simply meditative or too pedagogical. Aaron Ashley’s ambitious sweeping history of the Earth and the mineral zircon and Johan Larson’s description of cacao pests each work as a form of communication but less so as conceptually and visually robust art.

Immanence and its Distortions, Ashley Holmes, Emergence

Immanence and its Distortions, Ashley Holmes, Emergence

The films that use science as a point for creative departure are the strongest. Ashley and Ruby Holmes’ Immanence and its Distortions is a moving visual ode to the process of coral spawning. The film shows the rhythmic night-time dance of spawning pink egg and sperm bundles as they are released from coral polyps and and float up into azure liquidity. Even though made under scientific conditions the filming is mesmerising, the quality of the rendering glossy, the colour sharp and sexy.

As Chopin’s Nocturne sounds, the camera zooms out and the viewer realises they are not watching coral spawning once-removed, but through a screen, one framed and gilded. As the camera continues to zoom outward, the image reveals a Spanish or Mexican shrine-like installation with many more frames and an inset tiny scroll. A wunderkammer collection of lit candles and dried white coral forms fills the final shot. So framed, the coral spawning feels aligned with the past, as if already lost.

Donna Maree Robinson’s Pathogenicity is also a lustrous creation, despite its imagery being drawn from water samples collected for the Mackay Council Water and Waste Laboratory. The video displays concentric, boldly coloured disc shapes twisting within each other. Inside each circle is a kind of lava-lamp movement—unctuous, gleaming, rolling. Exploring the microbiological colour change processes used by scientists to measure water bacteria, Robinson takes us through a portal to reflect on the invisible aspects of a finite resource that flows within all things. Synthesised sounds and the rubbing of a finger around a wine glass reinforce the work’s cyclical motif, evoking water’s essence. The hypnotic fluidity of the movement of the disks inclines the viewer to slowly tilt their head from side to side in another mesmeric and contemplative creation.

Un-In-Vaded, Katya Venter, Emergence

Un-In-Vaded, Katya Venter, Emergence

Some of the works, while conceptually and visually strong, jeopardise the original meaning and purpose of the scientific data. In Katya Venter’s Un-In-Vaded, for example, created in partnership with Reef HQ Aquarium, the silhouette of a cityscape is overlaid on film of a seabed with ocean rocks and inquisitive reef fish. Animated black drawings combine human features with tentacles to create hybrids that swim in this ‘city in the sea’ with the fishes. It’s a big departure from the original film data and the reason behind the juxtaposition is not clarified beyond pointing to the similarities between humans and reef life.

Graeme Sullivan writes that the status of the artist is one of a “cultural lamplighter, human visionary, and educator” (Art practice as research: Inquiry in the visual arts. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2005). Emergence provides examples of the magic with which artists can illuminate complex knowledge as well as underlining the challenges of shining light on data and expressing it in a captivating, communicative way.

Emergence, curator Michelle Hall, JCU eMerge Gallery, Townsville, 19 Feb-27 March

The works in Emergence will be screened at COCA Theatre Cairns, 15 April and shown at CQU Conservatorium, Mackay 13-23 May.

RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016, web

© Alex Christopher; for permission to reproduce apply to

13 April 2016